Juneteenth 2019 celebrations. Photos courtesy of Juanta Griffin.

The village of Oak Park formally recognized the Juneteenth holiday, celebrated annually on June 19, and committed to support celebrations both in spirit and financially during a June 15 board of trustees meeting.

Juanta Griffin, Oak Park Public Library multicultural learning coordinator, read the village proclamation.

“Juneteenth today, celebrates Black freedom and achievement; as it takes on a more national, symbolic, and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all roots tie back to that fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing,” the proclamation reads.

While reading the proclamation, Griffin was moved to tears.

“It meant, ‘I see you as a people – not just a holiday, not just a culture. I see your pain,'” she said. “It was just remarkable.”

The proclamation, Griffin believes, was the village declaring, “Not only will I celebrate with you, I will also commit to it. I will also financially support it because this is important, and you are important, and your people are valuable.”

Juneteenth commemorates the day Union Major General Gordon Granger landed at the island city of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, with news of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed two and a half years prior.

“General Gordon Granger came to Galveston and saw all these slaves. They didn’t know they were free,” said Griffin. “They were slaves for two and a half years after slavery had ended.”

Embracing their newfound freedom, many formerly enslaved people left to find their families, who had been separated and sold off to different slaveowners.

“They started to do things they weren’t legally able to do before,” Griffin said.

Juneteenth celebrations occur throughout the country with all but three states recognizing it as a holiday. The state of Illinois officially recognized it in 2003.

Griffin said she felt her ancestors with her while she read the proclamation June 15.

“Every time I do something for Black people that works on inclusion, that works on freedom, I can feel my ancestors behind me,” said Griffin.

The world we live in is a product of those who lived before us, Griffin said.

“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. There’s nothing that we’ve accomplished by ourselves,” she said. “We are standing on the shoulders of the people who have gone before us.”

Griffin, a lifelong Oak Parker, has been instrumental in organizing Oak Park Juneteenth celebrations, alongside Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher and activist Anthony Clark. Past Juneteenths were marked with movie screenings, cookouts and special speakers.

To safely celebrate during the COVID-19 pandemic, Griffin and Clark have organized a caravan of cars that will drive through Oak Park and Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on June 19. Griffin expects at least 300 cars will participate in the caravan.

The caravan will begin lining up at 6 p.m. in the parking lot of Bank of America, 7126 W. North Ave. The drive begins at 7 p.m.

Trustee Deno Andrews, Griffin said, has asked the Oak Park Police Department to help assist with traffic.

“We would like the police to assist with traffic and not to be in the parade,” said Griffin.

Most of the money spent on past Juneteenth celebrations came directly out of Griffin’s and Clark’s own pockets. This year, the Oak Park Board of Trustees has committed to providing funds for the celebration. During budget planning for 2021, the village will set aside money for Juneteenth celebrations.

Receiving financial backing from the village of Oak Park will allow for a more accessible celebration, free for anyone who attends. She hopes other taxing bodies will show their support and contribute financially to future Juneteenth celebrations.

“We want to eliminate costs when it comes to celebrating so everyone feels welcome,” said Griffin. “That’s not a handout; that’s being equitable.”

After the caravan, the celebration will continue at Taylor Park, 400 Division St., with a free, socially distant ice cream social. Griffin is working to find a Black-owned ice cream truck – hopefully one that has red Popsicles.

Traditionally, the color red plays a prominent role in Juneteenth celebrations, symbolic of more than just resilience and ingenuity.

“It represents the blood that was shed of Black people during the Middle Passage, during slavery, during the Civil War,” Griffin said.

Red also features in the Pan-African flag, which flies at many Juneteenth celebrations; Griffin will wave her own during the caravan.

The Juneteenth holiday has its own flag in the same colors as that of the United States.

“It was really important for Black people to show that we are Americans,” said Griffin. “We are a part of this country too.”

Griffin said she is proud that the village of Oak Park for its Juneteenth proclamation and commitment to the holiday’s present and future celebrations.

“This village is not just for white people; it’s for everyone,” said Griffin. “We celebrate everyone’s culture.”

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